The Lexicon of Babies, a short story by Sinéad Gleeson
A parable on parenthood by the author of the award-winning essay collection, Constellations
Sineád Gleeson: her awardwinning debut collection of essays, Constellations, has just been published in paperback here and in the US. Photograph: Tom Honan
The Palimpsest Council were outraged. There was spluttering and shouting and much stamping of feet, because they knew, of course, that they might be the last generation to have actual feet. There was no mistaking that this was an incendiary turn of events. The council had only been in existence for two years but had attempted to preside fairly over all the changes in this new world. Everything had been so singular up until then, but now every birth was like buying a pack of football stickers and tearing open the wrapper. Still, each set of parents were coochy-cooed in the bliss of their own progeny, whatever it turned out to be. From the eel-slick birth to the big reveal, they were heart-skip happy. Mostly, anyway.
No one knows how it started. How the country’s howling babes, all soft folds and blue eyes, were replaced by letters. Actual L-E-T-T-E-R-S-letters. Fonts instead of fontanelles. What were once pudgy, obstreperous infants now came into the world as life-sized letters. Instead of having a boy, girl, or non-binary infant, women were giving birth to the alphabet, or Lexicon babies as the Palimpsest Council called them. The first case was reported in Cloughjordan, Tipperary; then Inistioge, Skeheenarinky, Ballinafad, Ringaskiddy, and a cluster of births in the Burren. One woman had twins close to the Irish border, and was in all the papers because one of the babies was a U, causing a resurgence in headline puns and sectarian tension. There was conflict about the Irish language alphabet, which has fewer letters than its English counterpart. Gaelgoirs up in arms as the shadow of colonialism rose up like a famine ghost.
Some of the mothers bragged about the number of stitches they had.
- Well, mine was W, so you can imagine…
- D was huge. Tore me to pieces, but you know, it was worth it.
Their partners stayed quiet, and remembered how much they were shouted at in the delivery ward. The robust physiognomy of the new letter-babies meant that they could eat from birth and did not require milk. Breast-feeding became a thing of the past, an old ritual like burning sage or writing letters by hand. There was a monument to cabbage leaves in the old part of the town. Breast pumps dumped at the doors of museums. On school tours, in later years, children passed them in glass cases and assumed that they were once used as torture devices in wars.
Everyone wanted X, Q and Z babies. Their size, their complicated shape was a physical declaration that the mothers had suffered. A demonstrative martyrdom. Vowel babies were not so in demand. There were more of them, and they were considered common. Coupled with the ease of their births, they become a source of derision for the mothers of consonants.
Some things, of course, stayed the same. The women competed in that way new mothers often do, in the desperation of their virtuousness and the projected high achievements of their offspring. M babies, all angular, hairpin lines were excellent dancers and were duly enrolled in ballet and experimental tap classes. L babies were naturally suited to yoga; the babies at the latter end of the alphabet were more cerebral - no one knew why - and were often found in the library, munching on the corner of large print books. Y babies had a particular talent for music, thanks to their forked limbs. Some played instruments, but drums were popular necessitating the purchase of expensive ear protectors. The babies also had a penchant for hip hop: Kurtis Blow, Wu Tang Clan, Missy Elliott.
Here are some more things about the babies.
They could walk from birth, standing up like jelly-legged antelopes in the hospital. They tired easily though, and still required lordly transportation in buggies. Some of the babies had top-of-the-range prams. Souped-up fancy models in titanium and neon shades that were only slightly smaller than motorbikes. Most people could not justify the expense, but parents of M and W - wide-babies - had no choice. I and A parents, aware of the stigma around vowels, of how they were looked down on for their ordinariness and frequency, knew that their offspring would have a harder time in life. Vowel parents deemed college attendence essential if they were to have any kind of life. They carted their babies around in boxes from supermarkets, saving on pram expenses that they could put towards the fees. That was on the assumption, of course, that college fees, or indeed college, would still exist when the babies were of an age to go. The less favoured letters simply had to work harder in a world that preferred their elite alphabetical peers. The discrimination was meted out in small, icy moments; in garden centres and coffee shop queues. Everything was changing, but the unspoken consensus among adults and babies alike was that it was important to carry on as before.
The babies had no pronouns. Not in the spirit of modernity or fluidity, mind, but because the English alphabet had no gender, and the council were glad of small mercies amid the crisis. There was no reason to dress babies in pink or blue now. , but these tiny dervishes were inveterate consumers, their mothers attuned to sartorial trends. This season’s colour was, by chance or some weird synchronicity, taupe; so all the babies looked naked from a distance. Or that they were wearing some weird extra layer of baby skin. Of course the babies still had hearts and lungs. Each one still shat like a canon, cried from hunger or tiredness, or when bulbs of tiny teeth sprouted in their mouths.
On the day it happened, the Palimpsest Council had disbanded for the summer recess. Two months of coastal trips and cloudless skies, the motorways centipeded with cars, beaches buzzing with mothers slathering suncream on little B and Y. It was when the city was mostly drained of its population that the mothers of the Z babies (Zed, not Zee) decided that they deserved their own section of the park. As the last letter of the alphabet, the mothers felt that this had both a spiritual and political significance. They had, after all, poured over Greek history and civilisation, and knew well that Omega meant ‘great’. These babies were gods. Destined for greatness. Who could argue with what history and etymology had determined? The Z mothers set their plan in motion by cordoning off a slab of green for their precious offspring. A little grass suite, with an ostentatious slide, a specially adapted round-a-bout, and an odd little boat for the Z babies to lie down in when they needed a nap. These babies considered prams beneath them and each was carried around in a sedan.
It was at this point - later known as ‘Parkgate’ - that the full extent of what lay ahead became clear. The Z mothers decided that vowels should not be allowed to mix with consonants. They waved around certificates in Greek history bought online, muttering about vowel babies being the equivalent of Alpha, the lowest value letter. The segregation was subtle at first, but there was resistance, and Z husbands were coerced into forming a militia of fathers to enforce it. The babies collectively thumb-sucked, while the parents schemed. It took just days before congregations of E’s and A’s were banned. The consonant mothers felt some unease, which they swatted away, guiltily glad that their babies were not the source of persecution. But marrow deep, they knew this was wrong and before long, antipathy was replaced by molten fury. They’d had years of inequality themselves, and here was the chance to claw something back, to reach out to their vowel brothers and sisters. To shout loudly in the street. The babies’ neurons were also expanding. Each hippocampus was growing, and the babies - upon realising how little power their singularity had - began to seek out other letters. The formerly downtrodden vowels were suddenly treated with respect, as comrades-in-arms. Who were the Z babies to think that they were better than everyone else? Injustice rattled in their bellies like coins in a jar. The newly united non-Z offspring leapt into action. Large demonstrations were organised. Gangs of ostracised babies began to assemble on the street. The city centre was awash with the jagged corners of M and K and E. The mothers walked respectfully alongside them, laden down with changing bags and Go-Pros: in case of arrest, they’d at least have their own version of events on record. The babies were nothing if not enthusiastic about civil disobedience. Some of the older toddlers looted the pram shops; others were dressed in black, wearing berets. One or two had sunglasses and covered their faces with scarves.
Meanwhile, the Z mothers began to dress their babies in custom uniforms with gold epaulettes. En masse, they resembled an army of tiny Francos. They hired a composer to write a new national anthem, combining elements of Wagner and the Amen break. On the once-immaculate streets, the non-Z babies began to mobilise and arrange themselves. Swapped positions and - with some spelling advice from their mothers and the handful of fathers who showed up - began to spell out their disaffection.
Line after line marched by:
The past froideur between vowels and consonants was replaced by a solidarity, aware, as they keenly were, that it was not possible to spell ‘Freedom’, ‘Protest’ or ‘Shame’ without using A or O and E. A shared hatred of the Z babies’ hierarchy united them. There had been recent rumours that mothers, upon discovering that they were carrying vowels, would abort them. This was denounced as nonsense propaganda by the more hard-core among the Z camp, but still the rumours persisted.
A woman called Jane* (not her real name) became the de-facto leader of the Z mothers, and had a fancy over at their HQ. She had two Z babies and spoke very loudly all the time. She was fond of saying things like: “We will never let their inferiority get in the way of our right to protest!” Jane-not-her-real-name spent lots of money on posters and flyers and roped in her computer friends to help with online ads and algorithms. Certain TV news programmes started showing only Z baby news. One small independent channel, operating out of an old shipping container, aired documentaries about the reality of life for non-Z babies, until Jane-not-her-real-name shut them down. She talked of war and threatened to separate mothers and babies; to send dissenters to former holiday camps and old convents. On a quiet morning, a group of vowel and consonant mothers and babies were pepper-sprayed and put in cages after a peaceful protest outsise Z baby HQ.
The city felt cyclonic. A frenzy of discrimination had been whipped up, and all the usual bastions of good behaviour - kindness, compassion, consideration - spiralled around, lost in its dark funnel. People stopped going to work. Food rations began. Electricity was shut down at 10pm every night. Helicopters hovered, blades chop-chop-chopping all night. Searchlights swept the streets as though searching for stricken sailors. But the world was watching, on propagandist channels, and footage smuggled out; on old digital cameras, and out-of-date smart phones.
Something was changing. Not just because summer arrived early, bringing with it the smell of heat-soaked garbage. The Z babies grew hot in their uniforms, the pomp now replaced by sweat and chafing. They had time to think, in the shade of their sedans, full-nappied and parboiled. With their newly accelerated sentience, their sense of justice and sensed the bile. The badness of it all. They were still wobbly as little drunks, gurgling and spit-bubbled about the mouth. But they knew that they were being propelled towards a movement where everyone else was making the decisions. It was as though their mothers had rouged up their cheeks, dressed them as cowgirls and entered them into a talent competition against their will.
On the kind of Tuesday that usually wouldn’t warrant an entry in the Palimpsest Council log, something finally did happen. A mother-called-Aoife came forward with a revelation. She talked her way past security at the Z baby HQ, and made her way to the 8th floor where the big brass mommas where, the ones who knew the President and politicians; the ones who had started everything that day in the park. In the lift, the mother-called-Aoife had second thoughts. She peered into her buggy and the coils of her gut turned, as though she’d been fired, or told it’s not good news. But the baby was curled up, blissful and oblivious. The floors flashed by in red pixels, 6... 7… 8…
The lift opened its jaws. Head held high, she forced her shoulders into an iron line, adding a swagger to her hips. Barely five steps in, the Z mothers began to rise from their desks exchanging looks, their bodies turning in unison, an involuntary act of curiosity. The mother-called-Aoife knew that Jane-not-her-real-name was short and protuberant. A sort of spud of a woman with an awkward side-parting that was, in an unfortunate act of mirroring, a little on the Hitler side. She manoeuvred the 360-degree wheels between the desks. The mothers encircled her as she scooped up her baby and strapped it in a practised manouevre across her breasts, which were now, she noticed, leaking like tears.
The mothers stared at her. The infant itself ignorant of the eyeballs arrowing up and down its small shape; a means of assessment. It was almost a C, if part of it were straightened out on a smith’s forge. Domino dot eyes moved over the baby, not computing. Was this some sort of misshapen O? Had there been some sort of negligence at birth? A foetal anomaly?
Jane-not-her-real name pointed at something and all the women stared. It looked like a piece of shoelace, or perhaps part of the elaborate sling the woman had buttressed across her body. But the string appeared to be a solid object, in and of itself. I have a purpose it declared. The string-type object was attached to something that was separate to the baby. Round in shape, a mini globe. Skin the same colour - a baby shade - made of tissue or mucus. But its purpose was undeniably umbilical, joining the two parts of the strange baby together.
The mother-called-Aoife smiled a little, a mix of pride and fear.
- It’s the first one.
The mothers covened around.
- Unique, the doctors said.
Jane-not-her-real name shuffled through her memory, pulling files from boxes. She knew this type of symbol. What was it again?
The mother-called-Aoife’s smile froze. The corners of her mouth slipped, replaced by tears. Quiet ones, then choking sobs and snotty rivulets.
-I don’t know what to do. Who’ll even want it? It’s not a Z, and it’s not a letter. It’s not even a fucking vowel.
At this point, she began to wail. A tribal sound. A rainforest lament. The mothers looked at one another. The feeling in the room was hard to gauge. The Z mothers could not tell if this stranger was friend or foe. The other baby mothers would either embrace or shun her and her baby.
Or they would see an opportunity.
- See, I thought if I came to you, we could figure something out, y’know?
She hiccupped in a crying-too-hard way.
- Any time it joins in a protest people will assume that it’s being rhetorical, or undermining the message. When there’s no baby like this one it’s…well…
The baby emitted a soft gurgle, its new baby smell all nappy and talc. Someone handed the woman a glass of water, and her ululations finally subsided, a reverse flood. The mother-called-Aoife clutched the hook and dot of her infant protectively. The light was changing and there was finality to everything, not just the day. Weeks had gone by. It was exhausting to feel that superior all the time. The world was complex. A last train rumbled on the viaduct outside, and the Z mothers, in one collective thought, began to realise that they could choose hope or exploit the situation, and that their Z babies were - for all their supremacy, their zigzag angles - only letters. Heck, they were a less complicated version of W turned on its side, if one thought about it. They were just babies. Tiny noise machines that compacted food and defecated. Loud compost bins with limbs. Was this really worth it, all this strife? Some of the mothers realised they felt uneasy. And tired.
In the days that followed the coup, Question Mark baby, now known as Supreme Majesty QM, Chancellor Question Mark, or simply, The Sovereign, took to the throne, with the blessing of the Palimpsest Council (though it was more of gilded high chair with wipeable surfaces). Instead of a crown, there was a jewelled sunhat with matching bib, bearing all the letters of the alphabet. The Z hierarchy was abolished, and the mothers of Z babies imprisoned and forcibly sterilised. The vowels were treated fairly in almost all walks of life. Syntactical nepotism was gone. The rumours that the Q and M babies were given favourable treatment because of their shared alphabetical heritage with the sovereign were hushed up. No more question mark babies were born, but a marriage was arranged for The Sovereign upon reaching adulthood, with the only Ampersand born to date. The mothers learned to know their place, to understand that their incubatory role was a divine gift bestowed on them. That they should be grateful and silent, revelling in bountiful joy if they were lucky enough to get pregnant again. The babies got along well enough, without all the forced hegemony. They swapped toys, caused a run on avocados and knew in the tiny bird hearts beating in their alphabetical chests that they were the centre of everything.
The Lexicon of Babies was first published in Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Lucy Caldwell (Faber & Faber, 2019). Constellations: Reflections From Life, Sinéad Gleeson’s awardwinning debut collection of essays, has just been published in paperback (Picador, £9.99) here and in the US by HMH